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      Public universities, managerialism and the value of higher education

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            The university (as experienced by most senior academics) has changed dramatically in recent decades. This has induced a number of them/us (e.g. Readings, 1997; Docherty, 2011, 2015; Thornton, 2012, 2015; Brown and Carasso, 2013; McGettigan, 2013) to write critically about its transformation, not only to mourn what seems to be its irrevocable passing, but also to try to make sense of what has happened and to consider whether recuperation is possible. Rob Watts is one of them and his new book opens with an evocative snapshot of what universities, or at least one of them – La Trobe University in Melbourne – was like when he began his affair with academia half a century ago.

            Watts’ book does not focus on La Trobe, however, or any other identifiable university. As a contribution to the Palgrave Critical University Studies series, it addresses what has happened to universities generally in Britain, the United States and Australia. This would seem to be a daunting task considering the complexity and variability of higher education in any one of these countries, let alone all three. However, rather than becoming enmeshed in the detail, he focuses on the common threads of ‘massification’ and ‘marketisation’, particularly the latter, although Watts makes clear that he does not propose to engage in a conventional political science comparative study. Nor does Watts embark on an empirical project either; that is, conduct surveys and distribute questionnaires to academics and students to ask what they think or how they spend their time. Instead, he casts a critical eye on the central concept of the market and its ramifications for the key roles of teaching and research associated with the university. His argument is supported by illustrations taken from the three countries, but not used in any strictly comparative way.

            A fundamental plank of Watts’ work is his critique of the way the public good of knowledge has become impoverished as a result of its imbrication with ignorance. Through this knowledge/ignorance dichotomy, Watts highlights the way public universities have become complicit in a kind of wilful blindness towards the ramifications of marketising public universities, leading to what he terms ‘market-crazed governance’ (after Carlen, 2008). Far from an increase in rationality, efficiency, intellectual cogency and teaching quality, obsession with the market has had the opposite effect.

            Watts shows how the neoliberal turn in Britain, as illustrated by Thatcher and subsequent governments, resulted in a process of creative destruction that was then emulated in Australia. In the United States, neoliberal policy-making led to the promotion of the marketisation of higher education, but the process was less obvious because the centralised policy-making structures found in Britain and Australia were absent. Of course, this is not to suggest there was anything particularly subtle about the vastly increased tuition fees and significant levels of debt faced by American graduates.

            Despite all the talk of markets in higher education, knowledge as a commodity and students as customers, Watts argues that such allusions are ‘persistent category mistakes’. Indeed, he devotes quite a lot of space to debunking the idea of a ‘free’ higher education ‘market’, arguing that the freedoms associated with a ‘free’ or ‘pure’ market are missing. As this is a radical argument, I include Watts’ table of freedoms (p.157) (following Jongbloed, 2003, p.114):

            Watts argues that none of these conditions is satisfied in the case of a higher education market in Britain, America or Australia. In one sense, of course, Watts is setting up a creature of straw, as it goes without saying that there cannot be such a thing as a truly free market in public higher education when it is a state entity subject to variable regulation in respect of subsidies, disciplinary offerings, fees, student numbers, international students, research priorities, etc. Watts does question whether regulatory qualifications might justify talking about a quasi-market, but even then, it is still not clear what ‘product’ students are buying: is it an education, time in the classroom or credentials? He suggests that it cannot be knowledge because this is essentially a public good. Whatever we might think about the marketisation of higher education, even if it is strictly speaking inaccurate, we accept it because we are yet to devise a new language to describe what has happened; we are compelled to extrapolate from the known.

            One dimension of the contemporary university that is novel is the role of administrators, who have become an entire new managerial class. Despite what appears to have been a significant increase in the proportion of managerial staff, however, Watts shows that in Australia, for example, the ratio of 1.3 non-academic staff to each staff member is just the same as it was before the 1990s, when large numbers of support staff were engaged in such tasks as typing up documents. Increased state intervention and accountability through regular audits have augmented the power (if not the numbers) of the managerial class, which Watts wittily terms the ‘manageriat’, and which must take more than a modicum of responsibility for the growth of his market-crazed governance. The deployment of new public management by the manageriat is apparent in the passion for generating income and for effecting spending cuts, but far from this income benefiting students, it has led to an ongoing decline in teaching quality. Indeed, students are not the beneficiaries of the additional fees they are paying as a large proportion of the income is being diverted elsewhere, notably to research and marketing.

            The voguish concept of ‘student-centred learning’ leads only to a marriage of knowledge and ignorance as students become the arbiters of excellence in teaching, causing teachers to capitulate and dumb down their courses in the hope they will not be judged too harshly in student evaluations. Underscoring the point, one Australian study reported that a quarter of students never borrowed a book from the library, but students were nevertheless receiving marks of over 70% (p.285). We know that grade inflation is one dimension of the knowledge/ignorance dualism as students demand more and more for their tuition dollar; if they do not receive high marks in assessment, it must be because they were badly taught. Nevertheless, despite the disinvestment in teaching, universities continue to talk up how good their teaching is, a further manifestation of market-crazed governance. Much store is set by university rankings, which have little to do with student satisfaction, but are a product of the age of a university and its positional goods, that is ‘being a “sandstone” university in Australia, one of the “ancient” universities in Britain, or one of the Ivy League colleges in America’ (p.171). This is despite the fact that the micromanagement of academic work by the manageriat everywhere has resulted in stress and burnout of academics themselves.

            Watts shows that the marketisation of research has been no more successful than the marketisation of teaching in the contemporary university. The measuring of the quality of research through the regular assessment exercises conducted in Britain and Australia are described as utterly vacuous, both in terms of their method (such as British academics expending an entire year reading research ‘outputs’), as well as the pressure on academics to publish ‘short-term’ publications as opposed to long-term scholarship. Most significantly, the continual pressure to be a productive researcher has irrevocably changed the balance between teaching and research, for it has further contributed to the impoverishment of teaching.

            Thus, far from higher education being marketised, privatised or commodified, what we see is a management-driven exercise with a contradictory set of policies that can only engender market-crazed governance. However, I am not sure that academics are deluded to the extent that Watts suggests. Does anyone really believe that we are in fact operating in a pure or free market in higher education? In all Western liberal democracies, there is a high degree of regulation. Hence, it is the state that determines the degree of public investment and disinvestment, and thereby the extent to which universities must assume responsibility for the generation of income through the marketing of courses and the cutting of operating costs. Also, it is the state that ensures students assume some of the cost of their education by mandating a user-pays regime, which includes specifying the terms of repayment. These market simulacra are striking after the experience of free or virtually free public education. I agree with Watts that we need a new model of the university in order to retain spaces for public scholarship, rational debate and dissent.

            Rob Watts is to be commended for reminding us how we have been seduced by market-crazed governance. His critique prompts us to rise above such governance rather than unquestioningly accept its fictions. Ever-increasing fees serve to encourage a focus on vocationalism, applied knowledge and credentialism, which is, after all, the rationale of the neoliberal state. I cannot see the clock being turned back to enable universities to engage in the noble aims of pursuing fundamental human goods, such as justice and truth (p.351), but as academics we should at least question cant and hypocrisy.

            It is disappointing to see many typographical errors in such a rigorous critique. I cannot refrain from observing that La Trobe University, the author’s own alma mater, is misspelled three times in the Preface. One would have thought that careful proofreading would be obligatory in a monograph in a series devoted to critiquing the university.

            Margaret Thornton
            Australian National University
            © 2017 Margaret Thornton


            1. and ( 2013 ) Everything for Sale? The Marketization of UK Higher Education , Routledge , London .

            2. (ed.) ( 2008 ) Imaginary Penalties , Willan Publishing , Cullompton .

            3. ( 2011 ) For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution , Bloomsbury , London . [Cross Ref]

            4. ( 2015 ) Universities at War , Sage , London . [Cross Ref]

            5. ( 2003 ) ‘ Marketisation in higher education, Clark’s triangle and the essential ingredients of markets ’, Higher Education Quarterly , 57 , pp. 110 – 135 .

            6. ( 2013 ) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education , Pluto Press , London .

            7. ( 1997 ) The University in Ruins , Harvard University Press , Cambridge MA .

            8. ( 2012 ) Privatising the Public University: the Case of Law , Routledge , Abingdon .

            9. (ed.) ( 2015 ) Through a Glass Darkly: The Social Sciences look at the Neoliberal University , ANU Press , Canberra , available from http://press.anu.edu.au/publications/through-glass-darkly


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            Author and article information

            Critical Studies in Innovation
            Pluto Journals
            September - December 2016
            : 34
            : 3-4
            : 257-260
            [ a ] Australian National University
            Author notes
            © 2017 Margaret Thornton

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